My Favourite Painting: Frances Morris

Frances Morris, Director of Tate Modern, chooses an absorbing abstract.

Frances Morris on Triptych by Sonia Delaunay

‘This painting is so brilliantly coloured and formally lively that you might be forgiven for thinking it is the work of a much younger artist. Sonia Delaunay was, in fact, in her late seventies when she painted it and its self-confident abstraction speaks to her wide-ranging experience as a painter, as well as a designer in the fields of architecture, fashion and advertising.

‘The painting also speaks to her lifelong commitment to abstraction. As a Russian émigré to Paris in the early 20th century, she was a pioneer of pure abstraction and brought to the genre the brilliant colour palette of her Russian heritage.’

Frances Morris is the director of Tate Modern, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

John McEwen on Delaunay and Triptych

Sonia Delaunay came from a Jewish family, her father, Elie Stern, working as the foreman of a nail factory in the Ukraine (then in imperial Russia). At 15, she was adopted by her maternal uncle, Henri Terk, a lawyer in St Petersburg.

As Sonia Terk, she accompanied Henri and his wife on their cultural travels, her artistic talent further encouraged by studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe. She completed her training in Paris, but soon preferred artistic independence, despite demands to return home to St Petersburg. Instead, she married the Parisian gallery owner who first gave her an exhibition, a move that assured her dowry and disguised his homosexuality.

The latest vogue was for Matisse and his circle, nicknamed Les Fauves (‘Wild Beasts’), whose portraits and scenes were in brazenly un-natural colour. Sonia thought they had not gone far enough. When she met the French painter Robert Delaunay (1885–1941), whom she would marry in 1910, she found a fellow spirit: ‘A poet who wrote… with colours’ — both wanted to free colour from description. Her quilt of patchwork colours made for their baby son led them to apply the same to objects and paintings. Indeed, her artistic versatility, especially in the applied arts, has proved particularly influential.

Triptych was painted over two months with no preliminary drawing. It has three sections, each with a different ‘motif’. She wanted ‘an area of white in the centre’, but to do this and unify the whole effect, she found ‘very difficult’. When asked if she attributed any ‘cosmic significance’ to her shapes, she replied: ‘No, no, no. I’m too earthy.’

In 1964, Delauney became the first woman to have an exhibition at the Louvre.